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Mar 9, 2017

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: A Short Biography

Frances E. W. Harper was an author, poet, and abolitionist.

Frances E. W. Harper (1825-1911) was one of the most successful African American writers of the 19th century, with many poems, novels, essays, and short stories to her credit. Her story, “The Two Offers,” written in 1859, is considered the first short story published by an African American woman.  She was “one of the most liberal contributors, as well as ablest advocates of the Underground Rail Road and of the slave,” wrote abolitionist William Still in his book on the Underground Railroad. She was active in the causes of abolitionism, suffrage, and African American rights her entire life.

Harper was a highly regarded poet, bridging the gap between the first black American poet, Phyllis Wheatley, in the 18th century, and the celebrated black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar in the late 19th. She began her first set of poems, Forest Leaves, when she was only 20. In spite of the fact that it sold thousands of copies, there are no extant copies.  Fortunately most of her poems do still exist in readers such as A Brighter Day Coming. The 1853 publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a profound effect on Harper, as it did on other African American writers. The book moved her to write at least three poems: “Eliza Harris” (reprinted below), “To Harriet Beecher Stowe,” and “Eve’s Farewell.”  “Eliza Harris” was published in three abolitionist journals that same year: The Liberator, Aliened American, and Frederick Douglass’ Paper.

Harper was also active as a teacher and speaker. When she gave up teaching, Harper moved to Philadelphia in 1854, where she lived at the home of William Still. His home was an Underground Railway “station” (the name applied to homes that provided shelter for fugitive slaves) so Harper was able to learn about the horrors of slavery directly from those who experienced it.  Later that year, she moved to a “hotbed of fugitives,” New Bedford, Massachusetts, where she began her speaking career with the lecture, “The Education and Elevation of the Colored Race.” Women were still not easily accepted as public speakers, but her path was not as hard as it had been for previous generations. Because of her middle-class education, Harper’s dignified and well-spoken manner made her acceptable to many whites, as well as blacks. Though she was often described as demure and ladylike, the passion she felt for her cause showed through in her often “fiery” speeches. She was hired as a speaker for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society, beginning a grueling schedule of lectures in 1854 that took her through many states and to audiences of both blacks and whites. She was later employed by the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society as a lecturer.  Harper was considered an eloquent speaker and frequently used the imagery of her poems in her speeches.

The poem below, “Eliza Harris,” is one of her many moving poems about the tragedy of slavery. Other heart-rending poems include “The Slave Auction,” “The Slave Mother,” and “The Slave Mother: A Tale of Ohio.”  In this one, she writes of the agony of a mother whose child is about to torn away from her to be sold to another slave owner, and the bliss of being able to rescue her child.

Eliza Harris

Like a fawn from the arrow, startled and wild,
A woman swept by us, bearing a child;
In her eye was the night of a settled despair,
And her brow was o’ershaded with anguish and care.

She was nearing the river—in reaching the brink,
She heeded no danger, she paused not to think!
For she is a mother—her child is a slave—
And she’ll give him his freedom, or find him a grave!

’Twas a vision to haunt us, that innocent face—
So pale in its aspect, so fair in its grace;
As the tramp of the horse and the bay of the hound,
With the fetters that gall, were trailing the ground!

She was nerved by despair, and strengthen’d by woe,
As she leap’d o’er the chasms that yawn’d from below;
Death howl’d in the tempest, and rav’d in the blast,
But she heard not the sound till the danger was past.

Oh! how shall I speak of my proud country’s shame?
Of the stains on her glory, how give them their name?
How say that her banner in mockery waves—
Her “star-spangled banner”—o’er millions of slaves?

How say that the lawless may torture and chase
A woman whose crime is the hue of her face?
How the depths of forest may echo around
With the shrieks of despair, and the bay of the hound?

With her step on the ice, and her arm on her child,
The danger was fearful, the pathway was wild;
But, aided by Heaven, she gained a free shore,
Where the friends of humanity open’d their door.

So fragile and lovely, so fearfully pale,
Like a lily that bends to the breath of the gale,
Save the heave of her breast, and the sway of her hair,
You’d have thought her a statue of fear and despair.

In agony close to her bosom she press’d
The life of her heart, the child of her breast:—
Oh! love from its tenderness gathering might,
Had strengthen’d her soul for the dangers of flight.

But she’s free!—yes, free from the land where the slave
From the hand of oppression must rest in the grave;
Where bondage and torture, where scourges and chains
Have plac’d on our banner indelible stains.

The bloodhounds have miss’d the scent of her way;
The hunter is rifled and foil’d of his prey;
Fierce jargon and cursing, with clanking of chains,
Make sounds of strange discord on Liberty’s plains.

With the rapture of love and fullness of bliss,
She plac’d on his brow a mother’s fond kiss:—
Oh! poverty, danger and death she can brave,
For the child of her love is no longer a slave!